They say New Zealand is like England.
There are undoubted similarities. They drive on the left like us – but the roads are empty. They speak English – but not like we do.
Some of the countryside reminds you of the Peak District, but the snow covered mountains and turquoise lakes have a European or Canadian feel and the fjords and glaciers are like Norway.
There are a lot of green fields but the trees and hedgerows are different. They have a prevailing wind from the west, like we do, but it deposits 11 times as much rain on Milford Sound as London gets. Hence, much of the south west coast is tropical forest.
They do not have as many birds as the UK. The houses are often single storey and of wood. The small towns have almost a Western feel with board sidewalks outside the shops, overhung by wooden canopies.
And, although I hate to admit it, the people are friendlier, particularly in shops and restaurants. Perhaps like we were 40 years ago.
But it would be doing a disservice to the country to compare it with anywhere else. This is New Zealand, where they live with the constant awareness of earthquakes, where their nearest neighbour is Australia, another sparsely populated country three hours across the sea, and where they have learned to be independent; to find their own international markets for goods, particularly after we left them in the lurch when we joined the Common Market.
There is a population of 4,400,000, most of whom live in the cities. The rest of the country – which is 20 per cent bigger than Britain – is sparsely populated. By comparison, London has 7,700,000 residents, and Britain nearly 70million.
What is it like? Wonderful.
You run out of superlatives. We spent 20 days touring from Auckland in the north to Te Anua in the south, and it was totally relaxing.
We drove 2,500 miles in a rattling hire car which had 150,000 miles on the clock, through majestic coastal and mountain scenery.
We had booked a few motels and hotels over the internet, but mostly we stopped for the night where and when we felt like it and never had a problem with accommodation. We usually spent between £60 and £80 a night for a room for the two of us. You could stay in backpackers’ lodges for a lot less.
New Zealand has more than its fair share of wonderful places, including brooding Milford Sound where seals slumber a few yards from towering waterfalls and Kaikoura, a whale watching centre with snow-capped mountains, but for me the best was a wonderful sunny day sailing out of Queenstown on an hour-long round trip across Lake Wakatipu on a 100-year-old steamer, the TSS Earnslaw, the only passenger-carrying coal-fired steamship in the Southern hemisphere, heading for an isolated farm
A walkway leads passengers deep into the engine room where a stoker shovelled coal into the furnace. At a tonne an hour that’s an awful lot of shovelling. On the bridge, the captain continued a running commentary, explaining that at the beginning of the 20th century, New Zealand Railways awarded £21,000 to John McGregor and Co shipbuilders of Dunedin to build a steamship for Lake Wakatipu, to link isolated farms and settlements. The Earnslaw was named after Mount Earnslaw, a 2,889 metre peak at the head of Lake Wakatipu.
Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip sailed on her in 1990.
The scenery was spectacular, and it was great lazing in the sunshine
It was a different story when we reached our destination, Walter Peak High Country Farm, and stayed for two or three hours. We were greeted by one of the great characters of New Zealand tourism, Lindsay Westaway who, with his wife Dianne has run the farm for 37 years, entertaining hundreds of thousands of tourists.
“We were here four years ago. You were about to retire then” one visitor said to Lindsay. True enough. But he never did. The couple had a retirement party and moved to Queenstown to live… but Lindsay carried on ‘commuting’ to the farm each day to do his famous excursions. He’s not ready to quit.
Lindsay is a sheepshearer, horseman, cattleman, tour guide and most of all stand-up comic. The jokes came thick and fast in such a dry, understated manner that at first you didn’t know whether he was being serious. All the time he was providing an impression of what life was like on a farm 160 miles by gravel road to the nearest settlement.
Sheep were rounded up by Meg the sheepdog (with 40 million sheep to control in New Zealand, the dogs are so important that they have raised a statue of a collie at Lake Tekapo) and Lindsay proceeded to shear a complete fleece in a couple of minutes, before taking visitors to see the resident deer and highland cattle. After refreshments, he was there to see us off as the steamer took us back to Queenstown.
That’s the town I liked most, with a huge variety of shops, restaurants and bars in a beautiful lakeside setting with mountains all around.
Speed limits are usually 50kph (31mph) in town and on the open road 70kph (62mph). With hardly any vehicles on the roads, you can accurately time your arrival.
For nightlife, Auckland, Wellington and Queenstown are best. Christchurch suffered a huge earthquake on February 22, 2011, which killed 185 people. A year later the centre, where banks, cathedrals, shops and the main entertainment venues were situated, is still in ruins and fenced off. It is a sad place.
“Do you think The Queen would give us some money to help us save the cathedral from demolition?” asked one man.
I had no answer but that said a lot about how close they still feel to Britain and our monarchy.